No question that Barbuto chef Jonathan Waxman has seen it all. His career has now spanned several decades, but his fresh, seasonal cuisine is as contemporary as ever. Oft-cited as one of the fathers of New American cuisine, he now has a gig championing food from south of the border. Waxman recently signed on to be a consulting chef for Rosa Mexicano, creating thematic menus with his own signature seasonality. We called him up to learn more about the job and his deep, deep love of Mexican food.
You’re most known for new American cuisine — how did the Rosa Mexicano gig come about?
It came about last year when I was on my way to the Aspen Food and Wine Festival. On the plane was Howard Greenstone, the CEO of Rosa Mexicano. We met and hit it off and chatted about food and philosophy, and business. And he called me up and asked if I wanted to do special menus for the restaurant, and I said absolutely. He liked where I was coming from philosophically and my culinary background.
Have you always been attracted to Mexican cuisine?
I grew up in El Cerrito in California, with Mexican cuisine, Chinese, Italian. … The first recipes I made were either cookies from The Joy of Cooking or Mexican food in Sunset magazine. I opened Buds in the mid-’80s; it had an eclectic menu but a lot of Mexican on it. A kid named Bobby Flay got inspiration there. I’ve been imbued in Mexican culture for a long time. My parents spent vacations in Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta. When I was 12, my mother went to Caesar’s restaurant in Tijuana and brought back all the accoutrements for Caesar salad. I was excited to make it with her, and then she brought out the raw egg and anchovy and I ran out of the room! But I just love the whole culture. My comfort food is a margarita, guacamole and chips, crab enchiladas, and any kind of posole stew.
So what kinds of things will you be doing at the restaurant?
My intention isn’t to reinvent the wheel, but maybe introduce more seasonality and talk about fun things from my perspective. One thing was eclectic cuts. I love eating sweetbreads and tripe and that sort of stuff we don’t embrace in America, and I thought, Let me embrace it. Jewish Passover is so great in the Mexican tradition. We’re going to do a brisket with jicama and chiles. Stuff like that makes a lot of sense. We talked about Baja and doing different tacos and street food — what you’d find in Ensenada or San Felipe. It’s a lot of fun for me, and it’s also a learning curve.
What do you love most about Mexican cuisine?
Street food. That’s where the soul of Mexico is. At the fancy restaurants, you can be almost anywhere. The Spanish influence has been great, but that’s not what we think of when we think Mexican food. It’s when you go to the market and see 100 yards of cactus or huitlacoche. You’ll see red snappers and be like, Oh my God, why can’t we get that stuff here in America?
Any underrated or favorite ingredients?
The beauty of the cooking is that there’s a lot of cross-pollination, and I like that Mexicans love spice and love vegetables and revere sweet and sour things. Tortas and papusas. Anything with corn. I’m a corn whore. I can’t get enough. Flour tortillas aren’t as interesting to me. But in Mexico, they’re now using different flours to make tortillas, like quinoa tortillas.
Do you plan on introducing any Mexican dishes to Barbuto?
No. Though we have it for staff meal. Chilaquiles, enchiladas, or taco day. And when the Kings of Leon were here after their concert, we just did Mexican food. It was make your own tacos.
Are there any foods or ingredients you just can’t stand?
I had a little bit of a problem with the ant larvae in Mexico. I couldn’t wrap my arms around it. And these insects — I don’t know what they were — they were bright red like mini lobsters. They just looked weird to me. I’m pretty good with everything. One of the greatest dishes is menudo. Not just as a hangover food, but one of the most delicious foods. Oh, and eyeballs — I find the texture to be pretty gross, and I am also trying to stay away from endangered species. I don’t eat octopus anymore.
What’s your favorite thing to cook of all time?
Late-night tacos. I get really mad at my wife when corn tortillas aren’t in the fridge. I love different versions, griddled or steamed. I have 10 types of chile salsas in my kitchen. And four ripe avocados waiting for me.
And what about cooking chicken? What’s your secret?
The first and most important is just get a good chicken. Don’t get one that’s too large. A three-pound chicken is perfect for a family of four or five. Secondarily, the oven has to be hot. Four hundred and twenty-five is the perfect temperature. When you take it out of the bag, you have to wash it to get rid of the bag juice, and washing it in hot water gets rid of bacteria. Then you stick it in the pan. I use olive oil and season the chicken properly all over. I can’t emphasize that enough. Literally just put it into a sauté pan. Now, here’s the trick. One, you gotta flip it back and forth. Move it around because ovens aren’t the same. And most importantly, basting. Take the chicken out, take a breath, have some wine, get a spoon and baste that chicken. And don’t overcook it. Three pounds at 12 minutes per pound. So it’ll be done within 36 minutes. Take it out when it’s at 155 degrees at the bone.
And buy a pair of welder’s gloves with tips [instead of pot holders]. They’re cheap and they’ll last forever. The kind with fingers, not mitts.
Check back in tomorrow, when Jonathan looks back over his long career as a chef and gives advice to aspiring cooks.